What does it mean to say that the Bible is inspired? (2 Tim 3:16)

How many times have you heard it said, “the Bible is the inspired Word of God” ? Have you ever thought about what this phrase actually means ? Paul Achtemeier, in his book The Inspiration of Scripture, has indicated the problems that are inherent in using the terminology of “inspiration” loosely.  He points to issues related to the use (or abuse) of this term.  The matter is not quite as simple as it first appears.

 The traditional answer to the question of what this statement means, is to assert (quite correctly) that the Bible uses this concept of inspiration to define itself.  However, we need to be careful in simply lifting out one word (this is all it is, even in Greek!) and making it the lynchpin of a massive argument.  The claim that “God said it; I believe it; that settles it” is ultimately an inadequate answer if we are truly seeking understanding of our faith.

 What, then, is the biblical evidence for the claim of inspiration? 2 Timothy 3:16 is generally regarded as the “proof text” for this topic, with the claim being made that all scripture is inspired. This verse appears in the passage set for reading in churches this coming Sunday, as the epistle reading in the Revised Common Lectionary.

However, even this verse must be viewed in context.  It cannot readily be extracted from its context and pressed into service as an abstract definition; we cannot assume that it is the fundamental principle held by all biblical writers, as no other writers of other biblical books give any indication that it was adhered to in this way.  We should note a number of aspects of this verse which caution us against making it a fundamental universal principle which applies equally in every case.

Is this the last word on the matter? Some interpreters have argued that the whole of 2 Timothy should be seen as a last testament of Paul — an attempt to set out his final thoughts in a clear, systematic, programmatic manner, as his last will and testament for his followers. However, caution is again required at this point. 

The authenticity of 2 Timothy is debated. Some scholars claim that it was not written by Paul, others say that he dictated it to a secretary, while yet others argue that it does contain fragments of material written by Paul, which are placed within a larger framework of a whole letter by another writer.  (See https://johntsquires.com/2019/10/01/in-the-name-of-the-apostle/)

Whatever the origin of the letter, it is clear that it was written in a specific context; it is by no means an attempt to set out basic principles, but rather applies such principles to a given situation.

 Inspired. First, the Greek word translated “inspired” is theopneustos, which literally means, “breathed by God”.  This was not a common term in the first century CE; many other similar terms were available prior to the New Testament to describe the activity of inspiration.  So the use of this term is not in itself a clear-cut way of proposing a “doctrine of inspiration” in first century terms.

 Useful. Further, we should note that in 2 Timothy 3:16 the definition which is given is functional, not ontological that is to say, it identifies the effect scripture has, and does not define the essence of scripture in and of itself.  The emphasis is placed on the fact that scripture is “useful” or “profitable”.  Inspiration, so it seems, does not reside in the writings themselves, nor in the writer, but results from the process of using (or applying) scripture.

 Scripture. A further issue concerns the word graphe, usually translated as “scripture”.  This word literally means “writing”, and normally it applies to Old Testament books.  At the time of writing 2 Timothy, it could not yet apply to the New Testament in a direct manner, since the complete New Testament was not yet formed. 

In his authentic writings Paul himself shows little awareness of the Gospels or of Gospel traditions; and there is no evidence for the collection of Paul’s letters until early in the second century CE.  By contrast, Paul regularly cites scriptures from his own tradition, the Hebrew scriptures, and it is clear that he considers these works to be important guides for living by faith. Romans, Galatians, and both letters to the Corinthians contain numerous such instances.

(There are explicit citations of Hebrew scriptures at two places in the Pastoral Epistles: 1 Tim 5:17-20, quoting Deut 25:4 and alluding to Deut 19:5, and 2 Tim 2:19, citing Num 16:5 and Isa 26:13.)

Thus, this statement was originally NOT about the whole of the Bible; it is only by inference that we can refer it to the whole of the Bible.

 Useful for … Finally, let us note the diversity of functions here attributed to inspired writings: they can be used for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.  Thus, a richness of meaning is perceived within scripture, indicating the diversity of ways of applying scripture.  There is no single function which is foundational; nor does this verse set out all the functions of scripture (the Psalms, for example, function in a number of different ways — for praise, lament, celebration, petition, confession, remembrance, and so on).

 Thus, 2 Timothy 3:16 itself does not offer a full and satisfactory answer to the question, what does it mean to say that the Bible is inspired?  It offers one insight, but it needs to be balanced against others.  It is not the last word on the matter.

Certainly, it is clear that this passage can refer only to the Hebrew scriptures, for the New Testament as we know it was not yet formed, even in the early decades of the second century. And it points towards a functional understanding of scripture, providing no basis for any claims about the divinely-inspired and absolutely authoritative nature of the books of the Bible.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/10/01/in-the-name-of-the-apostle/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/10/07/rightly-explaining-the-word-of-truth-2-tim-215/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/17/harness-the-passion-but-restrain-the-rhetoric-musing-on-the-role-model-which-paul-offers-in-galatians/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/17/let-your-gentleness-be-known-to-everyone/

Rightly explaining the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15)

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth. So writes Paul to his “beloved child”, Timothy, in the second letter that we have addressed to this co-worker.

(On the reasons why this letter may well not have been written by the apostle Paul himself, but by one of his followers after Paul’s lifetime, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/10/01/in-the-name-of-the-apostle/)

The letter presents a scenario that sees Paul in prison (1:8; 2:9), in contact with a group otherwise unknown from his letters—Eubulus, Pudens, Linus and Claudia (4:21). As Paul was previously in Corinth and Miletus (4:20) and is in Rome as he writes (1:17), the letter itself suggests a time near the end of his life. He writes, we are led to believe, as a mature believer, imparting wisdom to a younger co-worker.

This assumption is supported by some of the imagery used, with Paul describing his life as “poured out as a libation” (4:6) and stating that he has “fought the good fight” (4:7). We know virtually nothing of this period from Acts; the last description of Paul that we have in Acts (28:30–31) is generalized and non-specific, so we can’t cross-check with anything there.

This letter, like 1 Timothy and Titus, gives indication of disagreement and conflict within the early Christian communities, with varied understandings of faith being present in the place where the recipient of the letter is based.

 The opponents envisaged in this letter are described largely with reference to their verbal activity: they utter “profane chatter” (2:16), their “talk spreads like gangrene” (2:17), they engage in “wrangling over words” (2:14) and “stupid and senseless controversies” (2:23); they “captivate silly women” (3:6) and their “myths” are listened to by people with “itching ears” (4:3–4). The author certainly possesses a vivid vocabulary!

The author contends that these opponents are “people of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith” who oppose the truth (3:8), “wicked people and imposters” who deceive others (3:13); they have been “ensnared by the devil” (2:26). The long list of vices (3:2–5) might also be inferred as applying to these people. The rhetoric is aggressively antagonistic.

 The one specific identifying mark of these people who have “swerved from the truth” is their assertion that “the resurrection has already taken place” (2:18). Against this, the author refers to the future appearance of Jesus (4:1, using the Greek word epiphaneia, most unusually for Paul). There is also a quotation of scripture to refute the heresy (2:19, citing Num 16:5 and Isa 26:13).

Paul offers clear guidance to Timothy as to how he is to deal with such opponents. He provides Timothy with short, concise summaries of the faith that they share (2:11-13; see also 1 Tim 2:5-6 and 3:16) and advises, Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. So Paul instructs Timothy, whom he charges to be an apologist (one who contends verbally, and vigorously, for the faith).

The apologetic that Timothy is to exhibit is succinctly expressed in the excerpt from the letter set in the lectionary as this Sunday’s epistle reading; Timothy is to rightly explain the word of truth (2:15).

This letter shares an apologetic quality with the first letter to Timothy, in its concern for “godliness” (2 Tim 3:5), “the truth” (2 Tim 2:18, 25; 3:7, 8; 4:4) and “the faith” (2 Tim 1:13; 2:18; 4:7). It provides various indications of the content of this faith: an epitome in three short clauses (2:8), a more discursive exposition of “the gospel” in poetic form (1:8–10) and a five-line hymn (2:11–13), introduced as yet another “sure saying” (2:11).

Paul, the nominal author of this letter, is set forth as a model for Timothy; he is described as having been “appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher” (1:11) who provides “the standard of sound teaching” (1:13).

This “sound teaching” is entrusted to Timothy (1:12), who is exhorted to “guard the good treasure entrusted to you” (1:14). That’s the “word of truth”, direct from Paul. This word, in turn, is to be entrusted to “faithful people” (2:2) who in turn become teachers. So the letter clearly explains the way in which “the faith” is to be passed on from teacher to associate to local leaders. Paul’s authentic letters do not emphasise this line of authority in the same fashion.

 In his calling as a teacher, Paul has encountered suffering (1:12; 3:11), but he has placed his trust in Christ (1:12) and Christ has strengthened him (4:17). According to this pattern, Timothy ought then expect to suffer (2:3; 3:12) and should stand “strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2:1).

The imagery used to explain the leadership role entrusted to him refers to the soldier (2:3–4), the athlete (2:5) and the farmer (2:6); these images are consistent with the rhetoric of self-defence which Paul employs (1 Cor 3:8–9; 9:7, 10, 24–25). By contrast, the reference to household utensils (2:20–21) runs counter to the way Paul used similar imagery (“we have this treasure in clay jars”, 2 Cor 4:7).

 The author of this letter expresses a firm confidence that he has gained “the crown of righteousness” (4:8) in his eternal destiny. For Paul to write this would be unusual, as he elsewhere uses this imagery to describe other people (not his own destiny) as his crown (the Philippians, Phil 4:1; the Thessalonians, 1 Thess 2:19–20).

As the letter draws to a close, the author asserts that “the Lord will rescue me…and save me” (4:18). This heavenly rescue, assured for Paul, is promised also to those who faithfully exercise their ministry; Timothy, and other leaders, will find themselves in the company of Paul, in the heavenly kingdom (4:8). It is noteworthy that Paul regularly expresses hope in his future fate, without claiming clear certainty about it (Rom 5:1–2; 8:24–25; 1 Cor 9:10; 2 Cor 1:9–10; Gal 5:5).

It is doubtful, to me, that this element of the letter reflects Paul’s regular way of thinking. My reading of Paul’s letters is that he has much more of a concern for the present realities of life, and how the Gospel is at work in the present, than with the promise of a future off in the distance. He does not dismiss the future; but his energy and passion is oriented towards living by faith in the present.

The letter provokes us to ponder what it is that we regard as essential to the word of truth, how we go about rightly explaining that word of truth, so that others will be grasped by the good news and feel welcomed and affirmed within the community of faith.

 

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/10/01/in-the-name-of-the-apostle/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/17/harness-the-passion-but-restrain-the-rhetoric-musing-on-the-role-model-which-paul-offers-in-galatians/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/17/let-your-gentleness-be-known-to-everyone/

In the name of the apostle …

In this latter part of the season after Pentecost, in Year C, the Revised Common Lectionary is taking us through a tour of a number of letters attributed to Paul—which most likely, for various reasons, were not actually written by Paul himself. We’ve read a couple of excerpts from 1 Timothy and launch into 2 Timothy this coming Sunday, after which we move on to 2 Thessalonians.

Many scholars consider that the apostle Paul did not actually wrote any of these letters (along with some others also attributed to Paul—Titus, Ephesians, and perhaps even Colossians). They have been able to come to this view because of what is known about the widespread practice, in the ancient world, of circulating letters and other documents in the name of an eminent person from an earlier age—a great scholar, or philosopher, or religious leader, or teacher. This was done by a writer who wished to “borrow” the authority of the older figure, believing that this would give greater weight to the views and teachings included in their work.

The suggestion is that members of the church in the later decades of the first century did this, using the name of Paul, because they regarded him as a teacher of note and an apostle of the church. There were already many works like this in Jewish circles, and a number amongst the gentiles also; so this was a well-known practice. And the ancient world did not have the strict laws of copyright and intellectual property which characterise the twenty-first century!

1 and 2 Timothy are two of the three letters written in the name of Paul which are addressed to two individuals whom Paul valued as co-workers and employed as ambassadors to his churches—Timothy and Titus. The letters are commonly referred to as the Pastoral Epistles because, it is felt, they are concerned almost entirely with matters internal to the structure and governance of the churches.

Whilst Paul’s authentic letters reflect the dynamic nature of the community of faith, these letters reflect a move towards a more developed organisational structure. They point towards the institutionalised church of the second century and beyond, in which the way of Jesus would become determined by the authority of the apostle and his local representative, the bishop.

Each of these letters is addressed to a fellow-worker of Paul who is known from other references in Paul’s authentic letters. Titus accompanied Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem (Gal 2:1, 3) and was a fellow-worker with Paul in ministry to the Corinthians (2 Cor 2:13; 7:6, 13–15; 8:6, 16, 23; 12:18).

Timothy also accompanied Paul as “co-worker” (Rom 16:21) and fellow- preacher (2 Cor 1:19) and was a regular intermediary between Paul and believers in Thessalonica (1 Thess 3:1–6), Corinth (1 Cor 4:17; 16:10) and Philippi (Phil 2:19–24). Timothy is described as the co-writer, with Paul, of three authentic letters (2 Cor 1:1; Phil 1:1; 1 Thess 1:1) as well as two debated letters (Col 1:1; 2 Thess 1:1). In Acts, he appears regularly as an associate of Paul (Acts 16:1–2, 14–15; 17:5; 19:22; 20:5).

Each letter begins with a familiar assertion that it was written by Paul, but modern scholars have identified various doubts about this claim. Indeed, strong arguments can be advanced for dating these three letters after the lifetime of Paul. Clearly, these letters were written by someone with good knowledge of Paul and his teachings.

Yet the format of the letters and the distinctive vocabulary used throws doubt on the claim that Paul was the author. Whilst they each have a traditional framework for a letter, the body of the letter often reads more like a sermon or a moral treatise.

Over one third of the words found in these three letters are not found in the authentic letters of Paul. Many words found frequently in the authentic letters do not appear anywhere in these three letters.

In addition, the situations addressed, the theology of the letters and the ecclesial structures envisaged reflect many differences between each of these three letters and the seven authentic letters of Paul.

Together, all of these elements point to the conclusion that the author wrote these letters after the lifetime of Paul. He reaches back in time to the figure of Paul in order to validate the teachings given to the community of faith in his own time. The figures of Timothy and Titus represent the leaders in the communities of faith in this later period.

As we hear excerpts from the Pastoral Epistles in worship, and reflect on what they are saying to us today, we might ask:

How important is it, for you, to affirm that Paul himself wrote each of these letters?

Can you be comfortable with the idea that a follower of Paul wrote them in his name?

What message about the life of the church comes through these letters?

Gracious openness and active discipleship as key characteristics of church membership

Today, in the Congregation where I am serving in ministry, as a group we refreshed our membership and reaffirmed our commitment to active discipleship within the Congregation and the community where it is based.

The classic way that we deal with membership in the church has been in terms of status. This is how membership is defined, both in the Constitution of the Uniting Church as well as in the Regulations which govern the ways that we operate. The status of a person can be identified in that we are baptised members, or confirmed members, for instance.

So, the questions asked to determine membership are along the lines of: Is the person baptised? Has the person, if they were baptised as an infant, confirmed their baptism by a public declaration of faith? Or has the person been received into this Congregation from another denomination?

That is how we have usually compiled membership roles. Identify the date of your baptism, or the time when you confirmed your faith, or show a letter of transfer from another denomination. All of that is in terms of status. It is about setting good boundaries, defining clear limits. It is a closing off of the membership list at a clearly demarcated point.

Another way to approach membership is in terms of function. In this approach, the questions become: How does the person express the commitment of membership? What tasks and responsibilities might reasonably be expected from the person? How is a person’s faith commitment evident in their daily lives? These are matters of how the person functions as a member. This is about being active within the group, and about seeing the boundaries of the group as fluid, transparent, open.

There is a section of the UCA Regulations which provide a guide for membership that is more dynamic than the status categorisations, that sets out what is expected of members in a UCA Congregation in active, dynamic terms. The section is a description of Confirmation, in terms of the key markers that will be expressed by a member.

CONDITIONS AND MODE OF CONFIRMATION

1.3.3 Confirmation shall be according to an order which meets the requirements of the Assembly and which makes provision for the candidate to declare: acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord, determination to follow him in daily life, intention to participate actively in the fellowship of the Church and to support its work, and resolution to seek the extension of the reign of God in human society.

There are four key features in this paragraph:

* acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord

* determination to follow him in daily life

* intention to participate actively in the fellowship of the Church and to support its work

and

* resolution to seek the extension of the reign of God in human society.

This offers an understanding of membership in terms of a gracious openness, which is not bound by legalistic requirements, but which celebrates the active participation of people in the life of the church. This more accurately reflects the nature of the church as a inviting community of grace and inclusion, rather than as a closed book matter.

When we raise the issue of membership within the church community, I propose that we do it NOT in terms of “are you baptised and confirmed?”, NOT in terms of “do you attend Sunday morning worship?”, NOT in terms of “are you on the rosters?”, or “do you contribute financially?”, BUT rather in the terms set out in Regulation 1.3.3, to foster this sense of gracious openness.

Thus, we would be looking for people to make commitments in various ways: first, a faith commitment, traditionally expressed in terms of commitment to Jesus as “Saviour and Lord”; and second, to the local community of faith in Queanbeyan, in four specific ways.

One element is that people would express their commitment through active discipleship in their daily life. That is, discipleship is not measured primarily by what people do on Sunday, but by their deeds and words on each and every day of the week. It seems to me that, after expressing faith in Jesus, this aspect is the primary measure of membership.

Good members are active disciples. How that is expressed is worked out differently by each person, in accord with the gifts that the Spirit has given them, for their specific ministries.

Alongside this, there is a commitment to active participation in the fellowship of the Church, which can encompass the various ways that people gather together under the umbrella of the UCA: in Sunday morning worship, in weekly coffee groups, in fortnightly discipleship groups, in the regular bible study groups of the congregation, in the prayer group, in Messy Church gatherings, in friendship group gatherings, and in other ways that people gather together.

Good members participate regularly in fellowship. Participation in any one, or more, of these gatherings contributes to the overall sense of fellowship that we share as a community of faith. No one gathering is of more weight or more significance than any other.

Membership also involves active support for the work of the church. This can be in physical ways, through providing morning tea or mowing the grass or counting the offerings or reading scripture in worship or leading worship in the aged care facility or praying regularly for the people of the church and the mission of the church … and in many more ways.

It can also be in financial ways, through contributing a regular offering to support the work of the church (and such offerings may be given electronically or directly during worship). Good members are supportive of the ministry and mission of the church.

It is also clear that membership involves a commitment to work for the reign of God in human society. This can take many and varied forms: assisting in preparation of meals for the needy, participation in rallies relating to climate justice or justice for refugees, serving with Meals on Wheels or visiting people in a hospital or an aged care facility, taking people shopping when their mobility is limited or providing meals for people whose domestic situation is difficult, and in so many more ways.

Good members are working for the health and flourishing of others in society.

In association with supporting the mission and ministry of the church, and seeking the reign of God in our society, we might reasonably expect that good members are also willing to bear witness to their faith commitment, to offer words alongside of deeds, to speak about their faith as they participate in fellowship and serve others in need, to testify to their faith as they stand for justice and work to encourage one another.

And although it is not specified in the formal documentation of the church, it would make sense for us to be wanting to talk about what we value, to testify to the one who loves us, to share faith in appropriate ways with others. That might provide a fifth mark of the church: good members are committed to discipling others.

Of course, this looks like a long and daunting list. And it is! Probably there is no one of us who could affirm that we do all of these things each and every week of our lives. Yet, the list is aspirational (we aspire to be like this) and visionary (this is what we imagine we could be like). It is a good list for us to commit to.

I hope that all congregations are able to demonstrate this gracious openness as they encourage members to be active disciples.

Supporting the Climate Strike

It is clear to me that many people across the Uniting Church are concerned about the impacts of climate change, and have been supportive of the various efforts to raise this attention in the public arena. The Climate Strike this week is the latest such enterprise, and we should be supporting it. In addition, we need to ensure that we do everything we can to change our way of living to reduce our impact on the environment.

When the Synod of NSW.ACT met in July, it agreed by consensus to support the School Student Climate Strike on 20 September, and others like it. Synod comprises people from towns and cities right across NSW and the ACT, from every Congregation and Presbytery of the UCA. I was very proud, as a member of the Synod, to see the clear message given by the younger members of Synod, and the strong support across all members.

The precise resolution is:

SYNOD CLIMATE CHANGE ACTION STRATEGY

Resolved 106/19S

That the Synod

(i) Develops a Synod-wide Climate Action Strategy to reduce carbon emissions across all levels councils and agencies of the Church and to advocate to the Federal, State Governments and Local

Councils to take decisive steps to reduce our emissions nationally.

(ii) Supports initiatives taken by young people in advocating for action on climate change, including the global climate strikes.

You can find this on page 5 of the Minutes at https://nswact.uca.org.au/media/7536/synod-2019-minutes-final.pdf

I blogged about it at the time at https://johntsquires.com/2019/07/09/advocacy-and-climate-change-growth-and-formation-treaty-with-first-peoples-synod-2019/

and my colleague Amy Junor provided a fine reflection on the set of issues involved in confronting climate change, at https://johntsquires.com/2019/07/19/climate-change-a-central-concern-in-contemporary-ministry/

The widespread support for this decision, both at Synod and in discussions subsequent to this meeting, is quite striking. In my experience, this crosses generations, political leanings, and theological commitments.

The Moderator has written an article, published by Eternity News, which articulates the theological underpinnings for supporting this strike, which you can read at https://www.eternitynews.com.au/current/why-the-uniting-church-supports-students-striking-for-climate-change/

A Synod media release was issued on 26 August, at https://nswact.uca.org.au/communications/newsroom/media-release-uniting-church-the-first-to-endorse-the-climatestrike-movement/

A strong statement has been issued in support of the strike from the Head of Newington College, a UCA school in Sydney, at https://massmail.fi.net.au/t/ViewEmail/j/CE89880F76CEFA0D2540EF23F30FEDED/F4747CB15B40540BF99AA49ED5AF8B9E

Common Grace has provided a clear explanation of the issues involved at https://www.commongrace.org.au/im_rallying_for

Vivian Harris provides clear testimony about the impact of persistent protest at https://climateactionbega.blogspot.com/2019/09/persistent-presence.html

and The Conversation explains how participation in such an event can motivate stronger action for change at https://theconversation.com/why-attending-a-climate-strike-can-change-minds-most-importantly-your-own-122862

These links provide us with a clear understanding as to why the Uniting Church has been such a strong advocate for participation in this strike and why we are joining with school children and concerned citizens around the world to participate in this strike.

My wife Elizabeth Raine has written some helpful reflections on environmental theology at

https://revivemagazine.org.au/2018/07/20/and-god-saw-it-was-good/

and

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2012/06/musing-on-ecological-economy-why.html

and a series of blogs on living a life with low environmental impact, at

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2013/10/setting-sail-on-ss-low-impact.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2013/10/rubbish-to-left-of-me-and-rubbish-to.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2014/07/planet-at-risk-sorry-for-inconvenience.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2014/10/hygenically-sealed-in-plastic-for-your.html

and a lot more at https://elementcityblog.com (follow the links on the right of the page)

For my other blogs on the environment, see

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/25/873/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/05/to-care-for-honour-and-respect-the-creation-we-need-to-stopadani-k/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-4/

Where will we find hope? When will we see justice?

There are people in some of the Congregations of the Presbytery where I am currently serving in ministry, who will be finding the events of the next three weeks a challenge. They will be looking for hope, and seeking for justice. People from my Congregation at Queanbeyan, and people in the Goulburn Parish, will especially be impacted.

Today at Queanbeyan, the Prayers of the People were led by Marg Cotton, who invited members of the Congregation to pray for these people.

i invite you to join with her and the people today who prayed:

Lord God, we come before you today

seeking to make sense of a world

where there are many contradictions.

Bad things happen to the young and the innocent.

Wrongdoers prosper and seem to have

no remorse for the havoc they cause.

Sometimes it seems that there is no justice,

and that inequality and incivility are increasing at an exponential rate.

We make the effort to build a respectful

and hopeful community,

but the work of a lifetime can seem fragile

and doesn’t seem to be able to survive

without our continuing vigilance.

Misunderstood and misunderstanding,

we ponder our next steps.

Like the people in Jeremiah,

we feel cut off from your fountains of living water

and all we can see the is the cracked cistern

that can hold no water at all.

Where will we find hope?

When will we see justice?

Teach us, Lord, how we should be acting

in the current circumstances.

Let us first turn to you in humility

and recognise our need to be remade

and refreshed by you.

Come Lord and show us the path to take.

On this first day of spring

give us hope for the future

and a sense of purpose and optimism.

With the coming of spring

there is the hope of new life.

Help us to be ready to grow

and work together in this new season,

to hear your plans for us

and act to bring them into being.

In the name of Christ, we pray: Amen.

In the wake of the verdict (and appeal decision) relating to Pell …

With some slight modification, this post from earlier this year seems appropriate for revisiting today, the day when the appeal by Cardinal George Pell has been dismissed.

……..

There has been a lot of media discussion in recent times about the convictions handed down against Cardinal George Pell. Articles that I have read have ranged across the validity of the sentence, the quality of the evidence provided, the rhetoric of the defendant barrister, and the perception that Pell was targeted in a “tall poppy syndrome” or as part of a wider vendetta against the Church.

I have been thinking, not just about this particular case, but about the various elements of our culture that are involved in these discussions. There are many elements that deserve attention and careful consideration.

Fundamental to these discussions, should be the basic principle of respect for another human being. If an alleged victim raises an accusation, that person deserves to be heard with respect and integrity. It is not fair to label or accuse such a person, especially if the claim has not yet received measured and fair consideration in the courts. Disrespectful descriptions and negative labelling of victims should never be published by any media outlet.

Second, I sense, is a concern about the way that we demonstrate trust in institutions — whether those institutions are the justice system, religious bodies, or leadership in society. It is clear that, in modern Australian society, any institution is “fair game” for suspicion and distrust. That might well be justified in some instances—the banking and finance industry, for instance; or political parties, when it comes to “jobs for the boys” and (as we have seen lately) “goodbye to the girls”. But should it be the default setting when considering any institution in society?

A factor that I see running through all considerations relating to sexual abuse, is the pernicious influence of secrecy—whether that is secrecy by church leaders, concerned to maintain the good name of their church; or secrecy by perpetrators, seeking to quieten the noises made about their alleged activity. Perpetrators are particularly good at impressing the need for secrecy on their victims. That’s one of the main warning flags in a sexual abuse scenario. It is not a healthy trait.

Of course, there is a different between when something needs to be held as confidential, and when it has become a secret. Knowing the difference between secrecy and confidentiality, is an important process of discernment. Some matters do need to be held in confidence, while further investigations are undertaken, for instance. And knowing when it is inappropriate to hold on to a secret, is also important to discern.

The discussion raises questions, for me, about styles of leadership within our society. Cardinal Pell exercised a particular style of leadership. It may well have contributed to the surge of opposition to him, both in his role as a leader of the Roman Catholic Church, and as a person in the spotlight. Certainly, while his style of charge-through-and-win-at-all-costs, might have garnered him support from those who agreed with his ideological stances, it also generated a mountain of opposition to him. Is this really the best way to exercise leadership in society?

Of course, the recently-concluded Royal Commission has shone a spotlight in the culture and ethos which has been dominant in a number of institutions in our society, including the Roman Catholic Church, other church denominations, and other institutions dealing with children. The Roman Catholic Church has been carefully scrutinised and a number of the commission’s recommendations do deal with changes that need to be made, to create a more healthy culture with an ethos that values integrity and transparency above arcane processes and secrecy.

I found myself, again and again, coming back to the priority that should be shown (but which often has not been shown), to demonstrate authentic care and compassion for victims. There are too many examples, that I am aware of, where people who have been victims are saying that the way the issues are discussed in the public arena provides a trigger to their hurts and fears, to their anxieties and depressive feelings. We owe them more than this; we need to prioritise a way of discussing matters that does not replicate past abuses and reinforce negative emotions.

That leads to another matter; the importance of language. Nothing demonstrated this more, than the unfortunate and ill-chosen rhetoric of the defence lawyer representing Cardinal Pell. It carried an inference that the kind of sexual assault experienced by the victims in this particular instance, was a lesser grade of assault. The swift apology and withdrawal of the terrible phrase that Robert Richter used, is a clear indication of the power that is carried in the words we use. I know this from my experience in leading worship and interpreting texts, within my church roles. It is something that needs to be recognised in people right across society, in the public discourse.

In terms of my faith, the message that I hear pressing on me, again and again, is that the Gospel call to faithful discipleship is far more important than the matter of preserving the institutional reputation. The deeply sad fact at the heart of so many instances of sexual abuse by priests, ministers, and pastors, is that the Gospel call has been subordinated (and ignored) in favour of protecting the institution. That is completely wrong.

I guess that the culture of “let’s stick together”, “this is not who we are”, “don’t criticise us, we do lots of good things”, must have been strong within the Catholic Church. That explains why there was such a concerted effort by many, to protect their fellow priests. The same went on in the Anglican Church, and there are indications of it in other denominations and organisations.

There is something positive in looking out for your fellow priest, or minister, or believer. (Although I really dislike it when someone says to me—as they do, from time to time—“ah, but you Ministers always stick together”.) But, sadly, this sense of a priestly brotherhood, all looking out for one another, has contributed to this distorted culture. It is clear that the culture of the Catholic Church has actually fostered misogyny and secrecy in relation to abuse. The sense of belonging to “a brotherhood” has contributed to that culture.

I have noted a tendency, in some faith-based commentary, to look for conspiracy theories about the criticism of churches that is abroad in society. I don’t think it is helpful to become defensive in this way, and I certainly don’t think it is at all useful to label those who criticise the churches as demonic or guided by the devil. Such negative, condemnatory language is completely unhelpful. The church needs to be able to defend itself through reasoned argument, and not resort to judgemental stereotypes.

A final point needs to be made. There is a need to distinguish “The (Roman) Catholic Church” from other church denominations. There are things about the Catholic Church which are distinctive, and which set it apart from other denominations, such as the Uniting Church: the all-male priesthood, the lack of females in leadership, the power of episcopacy in setting the culture, the requirement of celibacy amongst the priesthood, the centralised bureaucracy in Rome, and the strongly bonded nature of “the brotherhood” amongst religious (men). These factors have contributed to create the kind of culture that has protected, and also fostered, abusers. The Catholic Church needs to work hard to dismantle that culture. And all denominations need to be on the alert for signs that secrecy and protection of abusers is continuing.

There is a fine prayer for the current situation, written by my colleague Avril Hannah-Jones, at https://revdocgeek.com/2019/02/27/prayer-for-the-survivors-and-victims-of-child-abuse/

This is a well-argued piece which focuses on the damage done by a Pell, to an individual as well as to the church:

https://www.smh.com.au/national/history-will-judge-george-pell-the-cardinal-who-sought-to-crush-me-20190227-p510ma.html

Frank Brennan offered this analysis immediately after the verdict:

https://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article/truth-and-justice-after-the-pell-verdict

However, Daniel Reeders has provided this careful critique of Brennan, and of others seeking to vindicate Pell:

https://badblood.blog/candle-lighting-the-catholic-response-to-the-pell-conviction/